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Carmen on the Lake

Image courtesy of Carmen on the Lake

In posing the question – what is fundamental to an opera? – to a range of opera lovers and opera novices, the same few words appeared: drama, narrative, music, and aesthetic. The culmination of these factors could be said to be the recipe for a masterpiece, and there is no doubt that the production of Carmen by the Lake astounds in every respect.

Georges Bizet’s Carmen, set in nineteenth century Seville, follows the tale of the factory girl and gypsy, Carmen, and her relations with the soldier Don Jose. Jose is lured away from his duties as a solider, and affection for the safe Micaëla, into a dangerous game of love, jealousy and revenge with the strident, beautiful, but torturous, Carmen.

Though the story remains a constant throughout time, this particular production is one of real grandeur. Being shown in cinemas on 14 September, Carmen on the Lake, is part of the 70th year of the Bregenz festival. Held on Lake Constance, Austria, it is undoubtedly the location that makes the festival, and production, so special.

The vast set is grounded in the water, with the setting sun as its backdrop. The lake, however, is not just a location, it becomes an integral part of the action. In the first act, Carmen, in a desperate attempt to evade capture, flees into the water, and the final act sees Don Jose and Carmen wading waist deep in the rose strewn water, before Carmen is left floating, dead, in the cold, dark, lake.

Gaëlle Arquez as Carmen. Image courtesy of Carmen on the Lake

Equally, it is Es Delvin’s incredible set that draws the immensity of the lake, narrative and production, together. Two large female hands with red painted nails, holding a smouldering cigarette, cast a pack of cards into the air to form the fundamental structure of the set. There is no part of this monumental arrangement that goes unused; at times the cards themselves act as a means of projection, showing details of the performance, or are manipulated to become pits of fire. The 24m high hands are even climbed by Micaëla, guiding and fully immersing the audience in the work as a whole.

Set designer, Es Devlin came across the concept by chance, after throwing her own pact of Seville playing cards into the air. Upon doing so she realised that the action not only represented Carmen’s inescapable fate but that of a mediation between ‘the air, as freedom and uplift, and the water as fate’ the two conflicting emotions that rule Carmen within the opera. So great is the set that it took four years to construct, and, as testament to the power of it, in both an aesthetic and an emotional manner – and a practical one, – the structure will remain on the lake for a further two years.

Design is not the only element in this production that impresses; even those, much like myself, new to opera would be able to note the quality of both the principle, and full companies’, performances. Gaëlle Arquez’s portrayal of Carmen is one of undeniable skill; her voice oscillating between powerful, vulnerable and seductive with great ease, and Don Jose's decline from composure and control, to maddened jealousy is masterfully depicted by Daniel Johansson. Palolo Carignani, the conductor, too handles such well known pieces as ‘Habanera’ with confidence and care, providing the audience with beautiful renditions of a memorable score.

If drama, narrative, music, and aesthetic, are considered fundamental to an opera, there is no doubt that this timeless story and this particularly stunning production, delivers - it is an operatic masterpiece!

Carmen on the Lake will be screened in cinemas throughout the country on 14 September 2017, for one night only. London venues include: the Covent Garden Odeon; the Camden Odeon; and Islington Vue. More information can be found here.

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